What you should know about the rise of dark tourism

(Hint: It's not all bad)

Abandoned amusement park in Pripyat near ChernobylView print quality image
A city amusement park in Pripyat, Ukraine, is covered in moss and lichen. It was abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Photo by Getty Images

From the Roman Colosseum, where death was a spectator sport, to Halloween's ancient origins in a Celtic festival of the dead, people have been drawn to death and tragedy for centuries.

But it wasn't until the 1990s that a group of academics who were studying sites associated with the assassination of JFK gave this fascination with the macabre a name: dark tourism.

In more recent years, so-called dark tourism sites such as the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City and Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former Nazi death camp in southern Poland, have noticed an increase in visitors. And since HBO aired its popular miniseries about the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, tour operators have reported an uptick in the number of visitors to the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

So what exactly is dark tourism?

According to IUPUI associate professor of tourism Suosheng Wang, the term dark tourism describes the phenomenon of people traveling to sites of death and disaster, whether man-made or natural. It is also known as "milking the macabre," the "dark side of tourism," "thanatourism" and "tragedy tourism."

Though dark tourism can seem like a particularly irksome form of voyeurism, it's not that straightforward, Wang said.

"We cannot simply say dark tourism is a good or bad thing, which wholly depends on how dark tourism is organized and how the local communities think of developing dark tourism at dark sites," Wang said. "On one hand, the original purpose of dark tourism sites is for visitors to memorialize the victims and receive education to ensure the 'never again' hope. This is why most of these sites are presented as sites of remembrance for heritage, education or history."

On the other hand, after a disaster, dark tourism can put local people in a painful or uncomfortable situation, he said. When one's hometown is turned into a site of tragic disaster, it serves as a constant reminder of the tragedy and can prevent one from moving beyond the disaster.

"In the transition from a place of past disaster to a place as a dark tourism destination, death is presented as entertainment," Wang said. "Such dissonance is an integral and unavoidable characteristic of dark tourism, and the stigma of death and tragedy may be distasteful to the local residents."

One reason Wang said we've seen a rise in dark tourism is because the number of disasters in the world is increasing too.

This means that developing a better understanding of dark tourism has become increasingly important as well, because it can play a crucial role in disaster recovery efforts -- particularly in developing countries, where dark tourism can stimulate and empower a community in mourning, he said.

9/11 MemorialView print quality image
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum is located at the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. Photo by Getty Images

It's complicated, however, because although dark tourism can be a much-needed driver of economic recovery for sites of past disasters, there's a fine line to walk between memorializing the dead and exploiting human suffering for financial gain.

Wang said there are typically two kinds of dark tourism sites -- commercialized and noncommercialized -- and two kinds of dark tourists: schadenfreude tourists, who glean a secret pleasure from seeing others' misfortune, and thanatopsis tourists, who are interested in contemplating the meaning of the loss of life. The schadenfreude tourists tend to be criticized for snapping selfies, staying in luxurious hotels and eating fine food near the places of past suffering, while the thanatopsis tourists tend to care more about preserving the dark tourism site as sacred and reject attempts to develop commercial activities on the site.

It is this convergence of the opposing motivations of dark tourists, mixed with the needs and cultures of the communities where the dark sites reside, that creates such an interesting backdrop for the moral quandaries raised by dark tourism.

"Critics argue that dark tourism is commodifying the sufferings of the past for the financial gains of the present," Wang said. "The onsite interpretation of a dark site can be overshadowed by commercialized representations, and the past tragedy becomes a site of commodity consumption."

For example, the dark attraction Auschwitz has swelled with tourist numbers and catalyzed economic activity in the region. But the souvenirs sold around the 9/11 Memorial in New York risk the kitschification of dark tourism, he said.

"Dark tourism provides a significant tourism experience while at the same time raising new anxieties and ethical dilemmas," Wang said. "Doubtlessly, it is a challenging issue for tourism management organizations or local communities to develop dark tourism at dark sites."